We Live in Interesting Times: How the West Views Africa

The Strathink Editorial Team

We live in interesting times. Our world today is faster, more connected and, in many ways, smaller than the planet we inhabited just twenty years ago. Yet, one part of our world seems surprising unchanged if we view that region from the perspective of the West—Africa. Despite the profound changes that have occurred in many parts of the continent, the West is bogged down in stereotypes and clichés that present a flat, one-sided view of a complex and multi-dimensional region of the globe. Fueled by a lazy media that rarely reaches beyond outdated clichés and stereotypes, Western governments engage in foreign policy exercises that reflect a misinformed and misguided perception of the new realities of African politics.

The Strathink editorial team would like to point some of the more glaring anomalies in perception versus reality in some East African countries. While Somalia dominates headlines as either rising or falling within the same week, Somaliland is working at nation-building in relative obscurity. While Eritrea, despite UN reports of the government committing “crimes against humanity” against its people is given aid packages with no conditionality, Ethiopia is subjected resolutions calling for the release of self-confessed terrorists. And while Burundi implodes from ethnically-fueled violence of a former Hutu rebel leader, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame endures the scorn of Western-backed genocide deniers.

Somalia and Somaliland

The narrative on Somalia is fairly straightforward in its bi-polarity. One week it is a post-conflict country struggling to rise out of the ashes of state collapse, social disintegration and economic disaster. The next week the narrative reverts to a corrupt and inept government battling al-Shabaab and losing. The truth, however, as is usually the case, is a little of both narratives.

There is hope now in Somalia for some kind of recovery from the nightmare that began with the Siad Barre regime in 1969. The government is functioning, the economy is improving and a new electoral roadmap that requires 30% of the parliament reserved for women is encouraging. Al-Shabaab remains a significant threat to the fragile peace and the security sector is in need of reform. The region’s drought combined with internal displacement and lack of access to basic health services and water contribute to the growing malnourishment of Somalia’s children. All in all, however, the fact that Somalia is moving forward on a number of fronts is a hopeful sign of continued recovery.

While there is good news coming out of Somalia, there is better news coming out of Somaliland.

Somalilanders must have given up on the good sense of the international community—including its fellow members of the African Union. For over 25 years now, Somaliland has functioned as a state in a rough neighborhood. Somaliland has its own currency, a trained army and police force, and a functioning health and education system. Somaliland engages in diplomatic relations with a number of multilateral organizations, including the UN, the Arab League and the EU as well as with the US, Great Britain and Denmark. The government works.

However, Somaliland has yet to receive official recognition from any country. The African Union stubbornly clings to the principle of adhering to colonial borders in an effort to keep the Pandora box of separatist claims tightly sealed. Unlike South Sudan, the international media pretty much ignores the Somaliland narrative because it is not sensational. Who wants to read about a peaceful state in East Africa? Somaliland remains a story waiting to be told.

Ethiopia and Eritrea 

Regular readers of strathink.net are aware of the editorial team’s views on the differential treatment of Ethiopia and Eritrea by the West. Eritrea, despite the UN report on the crimes against humanity perpetrated by President Isayas and his government, still enjoys the support of the European Union and pockets of the U.S. government. How does the West reward the Eritrean government for the massive human rights abuses committed against the Eritrean people? Yes, with an aid package.

The European Commission last week announced an aid package of 200 million euros with no conditions. Why? According to the EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, this money will be used to generate employment for Eritrean youth in order to stem the tide of refugees flowing across Europe’s borders.

The aid package is also designated to improve governance. We may need to repeat that statement. The aid package is also designated to improve governance. We might also add here that the development partnership between the EU and Eritrea is based on an agreement of “the non-imposition of any political/economic conditionality.”

In other news, this week the Guardian reported that there are massive oil and gas reserves off the coast of Eritrea that have remained untouched. In the meantime, the former vice-minister of Italy’s foreign affairs has been busy trying to revive Eritrea’s slightly tarnished image into“…a responsible and indispensable actor to stabilize the region”.

Oh, and wait. The aforementioned aid package for Eritrea is to bolster the energy sector, which will be open to foreign investors. And in still other news, the Italian vice-minister has resigned his government post and is now vice-president of Italy’s giant oil company, ENI.

Do we have to say more?

And what about Ethiopia? Last week, the European Commission passed a resolution condemning Ethiopia for the Addis Ababa Master Plan as well as a list of other “crimes”—including the drought, the 2005 elections and the detention of a self-confessed terrorist. Ethiopia’s trajectory since 1991 has been no less than extraordinary. One of the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia set out a path of economic development that not only has resulted in macroeconomic growth—double digit growth in the last ten years—but an emphasis on improving the lives of its small farmers, who make up over 85% of the population. In November of last year, the World Bank confirmed that Ethiopia would be a middle income country by 2025. According to the Bank, “the country’s growth has been stable, rapid and it has managed to decrease poverty substantially from 44% in 2000 to 30% in 2011, according to the national poverty line.”

Ethiopia’s indicators in health and education have transformed the lives of Ethiopians across the country. Ethiopia’s health and education sectors are meeting MDG goals with an impressive array of inputs in equity, policy support, human resources, and financial flows.

Ethiopia has built a foundation of institutions that are the essential building blocks of a pluralistic democracy. Following the untimely passing of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the world witnessed a peaceful and democratic transition with not one government institution failing to function and carry out its day-to-day business of providing public services to the Ethiopian people. The people choose their leaders from the grassroots to the federal parliament. Despite the pronouncements of the West, there is a vibrant free press. Corruption is a significant problem and the government has acknowledged the problem. The Ethiopian government is working with the state and civil society to put in place the necessary checks and balances to rid itself of corruption.

Despite the fact that the Ethiopian Prime Minister has said publicly, “we are not perfect,” in executing the responsibilities of democratic governance, the West holds Ethiopia to standard itself cannot maintain.

President Isayas Afewerki, however, in an interview with al-Jazeera, however, said that “we have not made one mistake.”

Burundi and Rwanda

Burundi’s downward spiral in the last ten years is especially troubling. Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel, became Burundi’s first democratically president following the civil war in 1994. However, his subsequent re-election in 2015 gave rise to violent protest and has plunged the country into the worst crisis since 1994. Burundi’s population is 85% Hutu and 14% Tutsi. The military command is mixed Hutu and Tutsi. However, it would be foolish to ignore the ethnic component of Burundi’s unrest. There is Hutu opposition to the President but there is overwhelming opposition from the Tutsi minority. These are dangerous times in Burundi. If the Hutu and Tutsi military split along ethnic lines, then we can expect the already worsening situation to implode.

The international community is more concerned about Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Despite Rwanda’s remarkable renaissance following the 1994 genocide, President Kagame is under criticism from the West. The economic resurgence of the Rwandan economy and the peace that has held since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) stopped the genocide seems to be not enough. There is a strange and unseemly attraction to re-visit the genocide through the eyes of the genocidares. Just last year, the venerable BBC produced a documentary that denied the genocide and blamed the Tutsi for their own almost demise. The documentary featured the killers and their misguided Western supporters who distort facts to present the genocide as some sort of conspiracy masterminded by the victims and their leader, Paul Kagame.

The perplexing revisionism of the West vis-à-vis the Rwandan genocide makes it even harder for Rwanda’s president to maintain the upward trajectory of a still fragile nation. Yet, he stays the course. The move to change the constitution to allow President Kagame a third term should be supported by the West as a special case scenario of a post-genocide state. Rwanda is not Burundi. The President enjoys the support of the Rwandan people and it is they who should decide on the next president.

Conclusion

We live in interesting times. Outdated stereotypes and clichés about Africa dominate the headlines and drive foreign policy. In the long run, however, those countries led by the righteous will continue on the path towards democratic nation-building. Leaders such as Pierre Nkurunziza and Isayas Afewerki will soon be mere footnotes in history. And it doesn’t really matter what the West thinks anymore. Africa will rise or fall on its own merits.

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